Jindal’s narrow loss in the Louisiana governor’s race doesn’t change one
of the most remarkable political realities of the past several decades: the
gradual transformation of the South from a Democratic monolith into a burgeoning
Republican stronghold. This is the biggest shift in political alignment
since black Americans dramatically abandoned the party of Lincoln for the
Democrats during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration.
Over the past month, former Republican National Committee chairman Haley
Barbour ousted incumbent Democrat Ronnie Musgrove in Mississippi. Rep.
Ernie Fletcher became Kentucky’s first Republican governor in more than three
decades. During the 2002 elections, Republicans took the governorships
of South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia. The most recent exception,
Jindal, had to be beaten by a Democrat who was pro-life and opposed to new
taxes. The South’s congressional contingent is increasingly Republican,
in the last decade contributing such present and former GOP leaders as Tom
DeLay, Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, Trent Lott and Bill Frist.
The Democrats’ Southern problem has come into sharp focus at the onset of
the 2004 presidential campaign. States Jimmy Carter had swept – including
even a few Bill Clinton carried at least once – formed the bulwark of Red
State America during the 2000 campaign. Former Vermont Gov. Howard
Dean, the closest thing the Democrats have to a front-runner in this race,
famously stated: “I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate
flags in their pickup trucks. We can't beat George Bush unless we appeal
to a broad cross-section of Democrats."
For this fairly innocuous comment, Dean was crucified as a virtual David
Duke apologist by his fellow Democrats, including that paragon of racial
harmony Al Sharpton. The statement was hardly a veiled statement of
bigotry. If anything, it was condescending toward the white Southerners
he claimed to want to appeal to. His point, after all, was that poor
Southern whites should hope to reap more benefits from the welfare state
rather than base their votes on their values. Yet even this awkward
appeal was too much for many Democrats, who automatically equate the South
Race is usually the reason given for the Democrats’ reversal of fortune in
the South. According to liberal lore, the Democrats lost the South
when the national party finally repudiated Jim Crow and embraced civil rights.
Republicans then began to cynically pander to racist electorates below the
Mason-Dixon line in order to win elections.
The prominent place race played in some of the most sordid events in the
South’s history – slavery, lynchings and segregation – is well known to almost
anyone who has ever glanced at an American civics textbook. There are
examples of Republicans as well as Democrats playing to this ugly past in
order to pursue an electoral strategy based on “divide and conquer.”
But less racially diverse areas of the country have things in their past
to be ashamed of on this front as well. Here in Boston, when forced
busing was used to integrate the public schools a full decade after the Civil
Rights Act of 1964 was passed, adults hurled obscenities and rocks at buses
filled with black school children. Political careers were built stoking
that kind of hatred.
Others point out that much of the South remains politically divided along
racial lines to this day. Steve Sailer recently discussed the extent
of this polarization in a column for VDARE; one of his examples was the Mississippi
vote during the 2000 presidential election. He reported that Al Gore
won the black vote by an astonishing 96 percent to 3 percent, while George
W. Bush was still able to carry the state comfortably (58 percent to 41 percent)
by winning the white vote 81 percent to 17 percent. Doesn’t this prove
that the GOP must be relying on a racist strategy?
It’s worth remembering that a much higher percentage of Republicans in Congress
voted for the civil rights legislation of the 1960s than Democrats, including
conservatives as well as Rockefeller liberals. Even the most prominent
dissenter, 1964 GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, had a history of
opposing segregation and supporting civil rights bills in 1957 and 1960.
Richard Nixon, the first Republican to win the White House with the help
of the “Southern strategy,” presided over the development of affirmative
action in its present form and a rapid acceleration of Southern school desegregation.
Republican gains in the South often came at the expense of Democrats who
were longtime segregationists. Yet the South moved into the GOP column
nevertheless. One of the South’s latest rebels against federal authority
is recently ousted Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore – a conservative Republican
who appealed to the example of Martin Luther King rather than George Wallace
in making his case for “Roy’s Rock.”
Perhaps the left’s eagerness to write off the early 21st century South as
a racist backwater is the root cause of the Democrats’ problems in the area.
There are many decent, patriotic Americans in the South without a trace of
racial prejudice. They should not be scorned for having the temerity
to disagree with the ACLU on the displaying the Ten Commandments on public
property or Sarah Brady on gun control, yet all too often they are and they
see that. They see their faith sneered at as a relic of the “Bible
Belt,” their heritage denigrated as the stuff of Ku Klux Klan troglodytes.
These people have begun to vote Republican because they believe today’s national
Democrats are contemptuous of them and their values.
Retiring Sen. Zell Miller (D-GA), author of the recent A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat,
said it best: ''Once upon a time, the most successful Democratic leader of
them all, FDR, looked south and said, 'I see one-third of a nation ill-housed,
ill clad, ill nourished.' Today our national Democratic leaders look south
and say, 'I see one-third of a nation and it can go to hell.' '' Miller is
a stark example of how severe his party’s Southern problem is. For
most of his career he was, as syndicated columnist Robert Novak recently
wrote, “a moderate, but clearly partisan, Democrat.” He was a staunch
supporter of Bill Clinton, who tapped him to give a rousing keynote address
at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. When Democratic then-Gov.
Roy Barnes appointed him to fill the remainder of the late Sen. Paul Coverdell’s
(R-GA) unexpired term, it was widely assumed that this would move the Senate
ever-so-slightly to the left.
Today, Miller is scheduled to address the 31st annual Conservative Political
Action Conference, on a roster dominated by leading Republicans.
After supporting every Democratic presidential candidate from Adlai Stevenson
to Al Gore, he already endorsed President George W. Bush for reelection.
At 75, he has followed the recent Southern political tradition of remaining
a Democrat in state politics but increasingly siding with the Republicans
nationally. Many of his constituents have completed the transition
over to the GOP entirely, as was evidenced in the 2002 midterm elections.
It may make some Democrats feel better to believe that the Southern trend
toward the GOP is a sign of its racism and general backwardness. But
the fact of the matter is that Gore would be president today if he had managed
to carry Arkansas, Tennessee or West Virginia, to say nothing of averting
the deadlock in Florida. Even Clinton managed to carry each of these
states at least once during his two presidential bids in the 1990s.
If that isn’t sufficient motivation for them to rethink a political strategy
that has successfully alienated what was once its most supportive region,
it is hard to imagine what would be.
W. James Antle III is a Senior Editor for EnterStageRight.com and a primary columnist for IntellectualConservative.com. He is a freelance writer from Boston, Massachussetts.